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Outside the Panels: Comics and Context

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At several points during his most recent interview with the Religious Studies Project, A. David Lewis alludes to the prominence of religious themes and images in comic books. In fact, if anything, Lewis downplays just how obvious the connection is. There are at least three intersections. Firstly, and explored at length in this interview, are the implicit and frequent utilisation of religious and mythical stories – particularly concerning death and rebirth – recast with superheroes rather than deities, and often reframed in scientific (or “scientistic”) language. Second, explicit religious narratives are frequently found in comics – consider Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, Craig Thompson’s Habibi, Robert Crumb’s literal presentation of Genesis or more prosaically, Marvel’s Thor. Not forgetting the ubiquitous Christian fundamentalist comics, or Chick Tracts after their primary producer Jack Chick, which due to their massive print runs are often considered to be the world’s most-read comics. Finally, comic books frequently include alternative or heterodox religious ideas, something underscored by the fact that two of the most acclaimed writers working today (Alan Moore and Grant Morrison) are practising magicians, and their work frequently contains references to their practises.

For some reason, then, there is something about comics that makes them particularly suited to discussing such ideas. Here, I will suggest some structural reasons why this might be the case. But I will also present a more sociological possibility, that comics and a heterodox approach to religious ideas go hand in hand, because both are typical features of the cultic milieu (Campbell 1972). As such, the analysis of religious themes in comic books needs to go beyond merely structural analyses.

Structural connections

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from Grant Morrison’s ‘The Invisibles’

Darby Orcutt’s chapter, “Comics & Religion: Theoretical Connections” (in the Lewis-edited Graven Images), suggests two reasons why the comics medium is particularly suited to narratives concerning religion. Firstly, drawing from McCloud’s seminal Understanding Comics (1993), he argues that comics allow a greater degree of identification than would be possible with a movie or a novel because of their ability to be deliberately vague about certain aspects.

McCloud notes that the iconic, simplified faces of the protagonists typical of the Japanese Manga comics style makes the protagonist more easily relatable, and this might suggest one reason for the many comics with simplistic protagonists in more realistically drawn worlds (Cerebus the Aardvark, Concrete, Bone, etc).

A second factor outlined by Orcutt is the manipulation of the readers’ perception of time and space. In comics, time can be slowed down and sped up, and future and past can be shown side-by-side. Moreover, by utilising the gutter – the space between the panels – it becomes very easy for the mythical world to be shown, literally outside of the bounded time of the panels, but interacting with the present. Douglas Rushkoff’s Testament makes great use of this technique, as does Alan Moore’s Promethea, from which the following page is drawn.

AMooreOne particularly striking and effective version of this – which also includes Lewis’ comment that comics seem unusually aware of the limitations of the genre – is to have enlightenment illustrated by having the characters fall out of the 2D, panel-bound pages, and see them from the three-dimensional point of view of the reader. This happens in Moore’s Promethea and Morrison’s The Invisibles, but there are many other examples. A striking variant found in recent works by both, Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier and Morrison’s Superman Beyond, have used 3-D colouring techniques to indicate when a character has stepped from the ‘flat’ world of the comics page and out into a world with (literally) more depth. While there are many literary examples of such metatextuality – notable examples being the characters meeting their author in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, although acknowledgement that the text was in fact a text dates back to Don Quixote, at least – the characters do not step off the page in quite the same way. Perhaps this is because comics combine both text and images, so one can be played off another. Interestingly, both Moore and Morrison take this further than mere analogy, and argue that when viewed from a higher level, we the readers are literally works of fiction ourselves… But that is a post for another day.

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Cultic milieu

As noted above, however, comics concern themselves disproportionately with heterodox and alternative religious ideas – lots of ‘funny ideas’ in these ‘funny books’. Comics are as much a part of the cultic milieu as alternative religions (see Kripal’s recent Mutants and Mystics) – what better place for ‘not real religion’ than in ‘not real literature’? As indicated by the frequency of the descriptor “alternative”, the cultic milieu exists not as a free-floating pool of religious ideas, but to a considerable degree as that which is self-consciously alternative to the social norm.

From this point of view, it is not so surprising that comics would be so prominent. Comics and cartoons (their non-sequential variant, although this is not always so clearly delineated) have a long history of operating as social critique, a tradition that goes back to Hogarth in the mid 18th century, and most recently played out in the Charlie Hebdo affair. I therefore ask, if the religious narratives concerned here operate in some way as a critique of more traditional religious narratives and institutions, does this therefore indicate that this critique is a particular concern among the demographic who read comics? Indeed, comics traditionally have a strong anti-clerical bias (Wilson 2010), suggesting an active attempt to reclaim these symbols of transcendence from elitist discourses. So long as we focus only on structural or narrative similarities, we may be missing the most interesting points.

Like religion(s), comics do not exist as sui generis artefacts, separate from their cultural context. We cannot treat them as naive material artefacts, nine-panel hierophanies which “manifest” or “embody” some eternal religious essence, but as a part of a much larger discourse on “religion” (term, not thing) – which goes on both in elite, official cultural products and unofficial, alternative ones, like comics. Therefore it is vitally important for a non-essentialist and non-elitist study of religion that we consider comics in their cultural and historical context. Without that, structural analyses may be merely repeating hegemonic categories and structures of power. As scholars we need to fall off the page, and see the panels which form the boundaries of our thought.

References

Campbell, C. (1972) “The Cult, the Cultic Milieu, and Secularization.” in A Sociological Yearbook of Religion in Britain 5. (London: SCM Press), 119-136.

McCloud, S. (1994). Understanding comics: [the invisible art]. (New York: HarperPerennial).

Orcutt, D. (2010) “Comics and Religion: Theoretical Connections.” In Lewis, A. D., & Kraemer, C. H., Graven images: Religion in comic books and graphic novels (New York: Continuum), 93-106.

Wilson, G. W. (2010) “Machina ex Deus: Perennialism in Comics.” In Lewis, A. D., & Kraemer, C. H., Graven images: Religion in comic books and graphic novels (New York: Continuum), 249-257.

 

“For a Secret Teaching, They Sure Do Write A Lot About It” – Is There a Gurdjieff Studies or only a Gurdjieff Industry?

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In David Robertson’s interview with Professor Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney and Steven Sutcliffe, Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh, the Religious Studies Project has curated a rich and wide-ranging discussion introducing – if David and Chris’ evident excitement during the podcast is any indication – an increasingly receptive audience of the next generation of scholars to critical approaches to Gurdjieff and the study of religions, an embarrassment of riches against which I now have the great but difficult fortune of contributing some of my own observations from the field. The interview is based on their February 2015 special issue of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion on Gurdjieff and his followers and the book they are now writing on the subject.

As it’s not every day an ‘independent scholar’ who is invited to write about their narrow area of expertise is gifted with such an obvious self-reflexive starting point in order to begin with both disclosure and gratitude, I hope I can be forgiven quoting myself being quoted by one of the great contributors to religious studies, Carole Cusack:

“My former Ph.D. student David Pecotic who did a Ph.D. on Gurdjieff’s cosmology … used to say, the article he was living to write was ‘If Gurdjieffians are supposed to be so secretive, why the hell do they write so much?’ – and it really is true …”

This is not that article, but it is a question I hope they will address in their book. What I want to do here is to focus on the three themes raised in the interview that I think are the most bound up in whatever the answer to this question may look like – category formation/disciplinary boundaries of ‘Gurdjieff studies’; the epistemological problems/solutions of archival study of esotericism in the digital age; and the way academia is inescapably enmeshed in the ‘Gurdjieff industry’, i.e., revelations of primary sources that occur in the inevitable sectarian conflicts that arise in heterodox ‘invented traditions.’

Category formation/disciplinary boundaries – will the ‘real’ Gurdjieff please stand up?

 

While there is little disagreement as to the basic content of Gurdjieff’s spiritual teaching, there is currently no concrete proposal about the place of Gurdjieff within the broadly scientific study of religions. Various categories have been or are currently on offer; leaving aside the old saw of page102_1his soteriological mission to be able to consciously act as a different person to better ‘match’ different people. To approach in an integrated way a man that was, among other things, a composer, choreographer, author, paranormal powers, just to name a few, would require a more sustained inter-disciplinary and collaborative approach in the future, and Sutcliffe and Cusack’s current collaboration are steps in the right direction.

The epistemology of esoteric archives – the source(code) of and solution to the category problem

3As definitions and theories rely on availability of evidence, archival access and what counts as a primary source (and who gets to decide) is a consequential problem. I agree with their observations regarding basic chronology and the epistemological problems implicit in relying on practitioners for publication of and access to esoteric archives. Yet it was their brief point about the effect of the internet that resonated more for me as a researcher. An esoteric field is no longer about scarcity but abundance. Researchers increasingly have the opposite problem of managing an accelerating quantity of primary source materials. Indeed, there is a need for critical editions if only to better deal with the proliferation of online document access to which both scholars and practitioners alike find increasingly difficult to quality control I would argue that digital technologies began to turn the tide of access in 2004 when the Gurdjieff bibliographer J. Walter Driscoll moved from the print version of his standard reference to the online publication ‘Gurdjieff – A Reading Guide’. Even the more ‘orthodox’, hierarchical groups that teach Gurdjieffian principles and exercises in a formalised manner have taken to the Internet via the Gurdjieff International Review. But there are also crowdsourced domains like The Gurdjieff Internet Guide which despite being officially ‘retired’ in 2012, has 10, 000 visits a month and continues to be an online archive for even the wilder engagement.

Cusack was right to highlight the recent publication flurry of new source material on Gurdjieffian practices, something that has been a special focus of my research (akin to Jay Johnston’s interview on the ‘The Subtle Body’ and David Gordon White’s response) such as what_would_george_gurdjieff_do_swivel_usb_flash_drive_-r5321371fdba3422385fc1c395cf0e0ae_zkhjh_324ed what amounts to a ‘Gurdjieff industry.’ While it is important that institutions like Yale University Library have archived the Thomas de Hartmann Papers, Maurice Nicoll Papers, P. D. Ouspensky Memorial Collection, it also represents a lost opportunity for the reconstitution of a more critical study of Gurdjieff in the context of the digital humanities which can enable more critical cross-fertilisation if not deeper ethnographic collaboration between scholars and practitioners.

 

The industrial struggle of the magicians and unweaving the wicked Webb

There are also demographic and generational reasons why previously secreted Gurdjieffian source materials are coming online apace. As Johanna Petsche, another former Ph.D. student of Cusack’s has pointed out, dramatic changes were made by Jeanne de Salzmann after Gurdjieff’s death, when hierarchical ‘Foundation’ groups emerged that subsequently formalised Gurdjieffian principles and exercises. As Cusack noted, de Salzmann was the first Gurdjieffian and not Gurdjieff. Not all of Gurdjieff’s followers amalgamated into this network; an assortment of Gurdjieff-based groups remained outside of it. It is these ‘independent’ and ‘fringe’ groups that are experiencing the most rapid growth and reform; the more orthodox groups are literally being ‘outbred.’

It is in this context that ‘insider’ scholars like insider/outsider process — “where one stands determines what one sees and what one can know” Capps (1995: 334-5). Similar explosions of understanding have occurred in analogous new fields: Wouter Hanegraff (in a previous RSP interview) has described Western esotericism as ‘one of the biggest last undiscovered niches in the academic study of religions.’ For all the above reasons, Gurdjieff may be the next in the field to be discovered. I look forward with keen interest to any critical reflections on my own observations, as well as to Sutcliffe and Cusack’s contributions in the light of themes I hope they will be able to investigate.

References

Azize, Joseph. 2013. ‘“The Four Ideals”: A Contemplative Exercise by Gurdjieff’ Aries 13(2) 173-203.

Capps, Walter H. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Fortress Press: Minneapolis.

Hanegraaff, Wouter. 1996. New Age Religions and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. E.J. Brill: Leiden.

– 2006. The Brill Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism. E.J. Brill: Leiden.

Heelas, Paul. 1996. The New Age Movement: Celebrating the Self and the Sacralisation of Modernity. Blackwell: Oxford.

Pecotic, David. 2004. ‘Gurdjieff and the Fourth Way: Giving Voice to Further Alterity in the Study of Western Esotericism’ Sydney Studies in Religion, 86-120.

Partridge, Christopher (ed). 2014. The Occult World. Routledge.

Rawlinson, Andrew. 1998. Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions. Open Court.

Petsche, Johanna. 2013. ‘A Gurdjieff Genealogy: Tracing the Manifold Ways the Gurdjieff Teaching has Travelled’ International Journal for the Study of New Religions 4(1), 1-25.